Over the past decade, SS&C SummerWind Performing Arts Center has come to be known as one of the premiere outdoor concert venues. Over the years, the venue has brought world-renowned acts to the Greater Hartford area, including Steve Miller Band, Bela Flek and Dave Brubek.
While the Windsor-based venue has brought top-notch entertainment to the region for years, it is now shifting its focus, putting the big name performers on the back burner in favor of local acts that will appeal to a broad range of live entertainment seekers.
More than anything the shift has been dictated by the economic climate, according to SummerWind Executive Director Michael Campbell, who conducted a financial assessment of national tour venues.
The assessment yielded unfavorable data. "In the last couple years they have taken a big hit," he said.
SummerWind is no different.
"From 2004 to 2010 (When SummerWind reopened following the collapse of its tent in 2003), the world for the arts definitely went through a big transition where money's tighter, support from corporations and foundations has become more competitive, and, let's face it, the large national touring acts need to make a lot of money; the overhead is quite extensive," said Campbell.
The overhead for acts like Steve Miller Band, Bruce Hornsby and Bela Flek — all of whom performed in the venue's 2011 season — are such that a non-profit organization like SummerWind stands to lose money.
And while concert goers crowded under the tent and filled the lawn space to hear popular tunes like "The Joker," SummerWind ended the season in the red.
"We just didn't have the development work and the marketing in place to be able to support that kind of expense in bringing them to town, although the audiences that came were incredibly appreciative and enthusiastic for it," said Campbell, who was hired as SummerWind's first Executive Director in July 2011.
Having been brought in to change the state of what he is proud to call a world-class, outdoor, non-profit concert venue, Campbell has devised an aggressive remodeling of the way the non-profit is run, the entertainment it will bring to audiences, and the audience members it will attract.
His assessment of concert venues across the nation produced one glaringly positive result: Venues that have experienced success during the recession were those that "had a real connection to the community."
"They did the national acts, but they also had the local, community ones as well. And the only way I thought we could transition to that business model was to go full guns, let's put the breaks on, have more of a connection with community, and then we can build that relationship."
It's called "Sundays at SummerWind."
Each Sunday in July and August SummerWind aims to feature top-level acts from the Greater Hartford and Greater Springfield Areas. Performances, which have yet to be announced, could range from ballet and top local bands to children's theatre and symphony orchestras.
While ticket prices for the larger national acts could reach close to $100 for seats under the tent, Sundays at SummerWind will bring a ticket price of just $12 for general admission seating.
Children and students accompanied by an adult will get in for free, unless a performance (the Hartford Children's Theatre, for example) is targeted toward a younger audience.
"We want to return to the fact that [SummerWind] belongs to Windsor, and we want people from all over the state to come and see what we consider the best non-profit performing arts center that there is in our community," said Campbell.
"I'm also a very big proponent of supporting our local arts organizations. That's really where it came from," added Campbell, who served as the executive director of the Hartford Children's Theatre from 2004-07.
"We have a world-class venue, and the local bands that are top-notch and other groups like Connecticut Ballet, who are very interested in playing... They don't have the opportunity to play this kind of venue, and what a rich resource and collaboration it is to work with our arts organizations that are homegrown in the state of Connecticut and give them an opportunity to play."
The one obstacle standing in the way of Sundays at SummerWind becoming a success is fundraising.
In January, SummerWind received a pledge from an anonymous donor — a challenge to match, dollar-for-dollar, up to $500,000 raised by the organization.
In just two weeks, SummerWind was able to raise $100,000, but there's still a great deal of work to be done.
"We need about $135,000 - $150,000 (more) to make our goal to mount the season, and we need it fast. We need it in the next month or so," Campbell said.
"It's a fact of doing business these days that $500,000 is what you need in order to mount a season with eight to ten shows in it at a world-class facility like what we have in Windsor."
To make that happen, SummerWind is accepting donations from supporters, writing grants for state funding and asking for sponsorships from businesses throughout the Greater Hartford area.
Five-thousand-dollar sponsorships will get a company or similar party a front-and-center table of ten seats for each show of the season.
Should SummerWind continue to find financial support throughout the region and successfully launch its 2012 season, Campbell sees bright things in the venue's future that go far beyond providing hours of entertainment to local families.
"I see SummerWind as an imperative, critical part of the community's arts scene where we're doing many community-based events, performances, and perhaps some national acts thrown in there, with a very strong education component for the young people of Windsor and beyond," he said.
"We need to replace our patrons, donors and performers, and what better way to do it than with the young people who live right here?
"I see a very rich educational component, but we've got to stand up on our feet first. We've got to launch this new season, show the community how high quality it is for an unbelievably low amount of money."
While no announcements have been made with regard to scheduled acts for the venue's 2012 season, Campbell said the organization is seeking a balanced approach to the entertainment it schedules, and he is currently in talks with a local ballet company, a symphony orchestra, local bands, an un-named, local musician who "has done well in New York and New Orleans," a local, award-winning children's theatre, and is seeking opening acts.